What’s So Bad About the Parks Rainy Day Fund?

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How bad are things in Sacramento?

The big scandal around the cash-starved state government right now is that the state parks department had a surplus.

$54 million, to be exact.

Now, there is some basis for the outrage about the surprise discovery of these millions in a couple of parks accounts.

Apparently, the governor and the legislature and the department of finance -- all of which are supposed to know where the state's money is -- didn't know about this for more than a decade.

The longtime head of the state parks, who resigned after the revelation, says she didn't know either.

And the state had been preparing to close parks citing a lack of money, and private donations, local governments and community organizations had stepped up to take over management of several parks.

And the Democrats are asking the voters for temporary taxes because the state is out of cash -- so the fact that they had unaccounted-for funds is less than helpful politically.

But -- if you can just overlook those six or seven problems with this news -- you might say the reaction to the secret surplus has been over-the-top and too negative. 

This is a state that has all kinds of reserve funds and supposed rainy day accounts -- and everybody's idea of a budget reform is to create yet another rainy day account -- but never manages to sock away any cash.

So the fact that someone in the bureaucracy was able to save some money for a rainy day -- even if it was out of incompetence or venality -- should be seen as a bit of good news. Right?

Gov. Brown's call for the attorney general's office to investigate -- a call that suggests criminality as a possible explanation for this -- is too much.

By all means get to the bottom of this, and find the culprits.

But before prosecuting them, the state might think about hiring them on as consultants to the department of finance.

The other good news here is the reminder that California's problems aren't, at their heart, about lack of money.

They are about a system so thoroughly broken, and complicated, it can't be managed.

One possible explanation of the problem is that financial data is reported differently to the state department of the finance (which didn't know about this money) and the state controller (which seemed to have received correct data).

Why the difference? For that matter, why have a separately elected controller at all?

And why not have a budget system that's simpler, so that people know how much money are in the accounts of the parks department? 

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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